Deconstructing Kashmir-Part III: In The Silences Of A Blood Soaked Frontier, The Still Living Songs Of The Saints

When the neighborhood was attacked, some members of the minority community were killed. The survivors fled. A couple however sought refuge in the cellar of their own house. For two days and nights they waited in vain for the assailants. Two more days passed. They were much less afraid of death. They longed for food and water. Four more days went by. By then the couple were no longer concerned with life or death. They came out of hiding. The husband tried to draw the people’s attention. ‘Please kill us. We’ve come to surrender,’ he said in a feeble voice. ‘Killing is a sin in our religion.’ They were Jains. They discussed the matter and handed over the couple to the people of another neighborhood for ‘appropriate action’.

Saadat Hasan Manto

The line that separates Pakistani Punjab from Indian Punjab has a million stories to tell, and all of them of suffering, murder, mutilation, rape, hate, dispossession and displacement. The fact is that the testimonies of partition remain poorly catalogued despite the centrality of this event in the history of modern India and Pakistan. It is as if the memories, and the realizations, of the survivors are too difficult to discuss even now. But by their silence the generations of Partition have left us with a greater opportunity to repeat the mistakes. They have in some ways denied us the need to examine the historical, political, social and colonial factors that led us to this ignominious moment in our history. To say nothing of the fact that the new generation does in fact carry the burdens of that cataclysm in the misunderstandings, hatred, fears and suspicions that still mar relations between India and Pakistan, and between her citizens. To say nothing of the obfuscations that continue to taint our histories and those that we teach our generations.


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The horror of 1947 cleansed entire towns of their populations. But always along artificially precise sectarian lines. In Jammu, a city for all intensive purposes part of the plains of The Punjab, the Muslim majority population was massacred, driving nearly 500,000 refugees into the arms of a new born Pakistan. By 1947 Jammu was a Hindu city even though the majority of its citizens were registered as Muslims. It was not only the seat of the Dogra rulers, a dynasty that expressed its legitimacy through the idioms and instruments of Hinduism1, but also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stronghold. As Pakistan looked to became a reality, certain Kashmiris raised a voice for joining the new nation. The Maharaja responded with a general massacre of Jammu’s Muslim population resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths. Jammu became a Hindu city, the famous ‘City of Temples’. A revolt in the Poonch led to the creation of what is known as Azad Kashmir. The children of those massacred and displaced now live within sight of this town, in and regions around Pakistani city like Sialkot, Gujranwala and Muzaffarabad. It is here, along this bitter frontier and amongst the newer generation of are taught remember, that organizations like the  Lashkar-e-Taiba find their most enthusiastic candidates.

At six in the morning, the man selling ice from a pushcart next to the petrol pump was stabbed to death. His body lay on the road until seven, while water kept falling on it in steady driblets from the melting ice. At quarter past seven, the police took his body. The ice and blood stayed on the road. A tonga rode past. The child noticed the coagulated blood on the road, pulled at his mother’s sleeve and said, ‘Look, ma, jelly’

Saadat Hasan Manto

The legacy of the Muslims still survives in this ‘City of Temples’. Sufi dargahs continue to flourish here, frequented by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, politicians, and just those looking for a quiet place to smoke a cigarette or share some gossip with friends. At the shrine of Pir Raushan Ali, possibly the earliest Sufi master to arrive in the city of Jammu, I sit and watch Hindu pilgrims walk by, most on their way to Jammu’s famous  temple to the god Rama – Raghunath mandir, and clasp and raise them to their foreheads in reverence to the saint. Occasionally a family steps across the threshold of the shrine, garlands of marigolds and incense sticks in hand, and approaches the inner chamber where the tombstone lies covered in layers of silk cloth and blessings of flowers. There is a peace here, and a tolerant welcome to all. The mutawalli (caretaker) is serenely indifferent to the comings and goings, sitting in a corner sipping his tea and staring into the distance. Legend has it that the shrine was constructed after the death of the Pir by a Hindu devotee – the Raja Sarpala Dharma, the then Hindu ruler of Jammu. “Prasad?” I look up to see an elderly Hindu woman holding a fistful of sweet rice in her hands. I smile and accept her  gift. She turns, bows to the saint and walks out into the market.

‘I placed my knife across his windpipe and, slowly, very slowly, I slaughtered him.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Why?’

‘Why kill him like that?’

‘I love it that way.’

‘You idiot, you should have hacked his neck off with a single blow. Like this.’

And the kosher-killer’s neck was chopped off accordingly.

Saadat Hasan Manto

“They wanted to move the shrine. But they couldn’t.” The mutawalli had a look of satisfaction on his face as he told his tale. “When the engineers started to move the dome they were overcome by a sweet aroma coming from the shrine.” His audience, four young men from Srinagar, held on to their cups of tea but didn’t drink. “One of them told the engineers to leave and reported the situation to his superiors. They then decided to leave the shrine where it was!”. He has hardly stopped speaking when the deafening roar of a passenger jet  coming in to land forces us to cover our ears. The airport and the runway was extended, but rather than move the shrine of Baba Budhan Ali they simply constructed it around it. The landing gear of the jets touch the earth a dozen or so meters from where the shrine’s main hall stands. Every half hour or so the noise of their screaming engines tears asunder the solemn and devout atmosphere of the shrine. The devotees, many of whom are either Sikhs or Hindus, seem resigned to this demeaning interruption of their prayers and contemplations.  The Baba may prefer to move if given another opportunity.

On the other side of the road that leads up to the shrine sits an Indian military barracks, complete with armed soldiers watching all movement on the roads, barbed wire fences, and security check points. I had approached it nervously a few hours earlier, concerned that they would turn me away from visiting the shrine. I had already been warned by friends that I would never be allowed to take pictures so close to a military base, and an airport that also served the Indian Army Air Command. But the security posts were not for visitors to the shrine, and I had managed to walk in without being questioned. Now I was sharing a cup of tea with the mutawalli, who had earlier welcomed me as his guest and insisted that I partake of a cup of tea. In between his stories devotees come up to him and quietly whisper in to his ear, asking for a private moment. He excuses himself to sit with them in a corner of the courtyard, receive their worries, prepare prayers and taweezes (talismans, with writings and prayers from the Quran) that they carry away with them.

I notice two young boys waiting for the mutawalli to give them his attention. “Why are you here?” I ask after introducing myself. “No particular reason. Just some worries.” The younger one who answers is fidgeting and looks nervous. His constant poking has pushed his dastaar (turban) askew.“What kinds of worries?” I pry. He smiles. “Life. My family. They keep insisting on me coming back to solve some problem or the other.” Then turning towards me, he adds “I am studying in Amritsar, but every weekend I have to come home to solve some family problem. I am hoping that Maulana Sahib can pray for me and help solve this.” “Is it interrupting your studies?” I ask.“No! My love life!”

“There was much madness. It lasted fifteen to twenty days. When we heard that injured bodies, dead bodies were coming in the trains people were going crazy. Then when the old man was killed, nobody could hold back.” They got guns, swords, spears, scythes. Then they went to the Muslim village. “It lasted just a few hours. At most two people killed the old man, so we should only have looked for them.” Harjeet Singh knew some of the people in the village — they were his classmates. He was looking out for them, to save them, but they were not there. The Sikhs rounded up the Muslim men, and gathered the women and children to one side. “We killed one third of the people in that village. About fifty to sixty men were killed in those few hours. The women ant children were put to one side but they were watching; they were screaming. In some places there was fighting, but they weren’t begging for mercy-by that time everyone knew that asking for mercy was meaningless, there wasn’t much being said.”

A Fatal Love, Suketa Mehta

The sacred mud at the shrine of Baba Chamaliyal is worth stopping war for. Each year, at the annual Urs (festival) at the shrine of Baba Chamaliyal, the soldiers of the Indian and Pakistan Armies make a small corridor in the otherwise impassable, mined and monitored Line of Control (LOC), and allow buckets of the mud to be transported to devotees on the other side. The sight of gaily dressed Pakistani devotees being handed buckets of the blessed mud and water from the well of the shrine by Indian BSF jawans is nothing short of a miracle given the mistrust and animosity that marks relations between the two nations the rest of the year. There actually is another shrine to the Baba on the Pakistan side, but legend says that he actually died here, at the shrine on the Indian side of the LOC which is now completely surrounded by an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) cantonment and barracks.

Baba Chamaliyal’s origins are not known, his life, as that of so many of India’s Sufi saints, surrounded in myths and legends. Some believe that he was a Hindu Rajput called Dalip Singh Minhas, while others that he was a wandering Sufi dervish. Regardless, his deeds and words, found an appeal to individuals of all beliefs, and remains so till today. The massacres that accompanied partition cleared this side of the LOC off the Baba’s Muslims devotees but tens of thousands return here for the Urs and wait anxiously to receive blessings from their Baba. The region of Ramgarh where the shine lies is home to an exclusively Hindu population, as a result of which the shrine at Chamaliyal is more a Hindu mandir than a Sufi dargah. The walls of the shrine’s main sanctum were decorated with images of Hindu deities, and a small alter for puja had been set up at the foot of the grave. The young pujari (Hindu priest) was just finishing his prayers as I stepped inside, and invited me to offer puja. I did. Across the gardens that separated the shrine from the LOC a group of men lay caked in the sacred mud. Further beyond, BSF guards with binoculars sat torn between their duty to keep an eye on ‘the enemy nation’ across, or peer curiously at the newcomer with the camera. I walked towards them and sat down in the shade of a tree. I sensed that the BSF soldiers are getting nervous and keep edging closer towards me. I was not prepared to confront more rounds of questioning. I tried to appear calm and made some notes. “Prasad?” It was the pujari holding out dry fruits and nuts towards me. I thanked him and then got up to leave. “Please stay. We have not had a Muslim here in many weeks.” “But the soldiers, they appear concerned”. He looked me in the eye and says “I too am a soldier. A BSF jawan. Stay. They will not say anything because you are with me.” I stayed.

The rioters wrestled hard with the landlord to drag him out of the house. He stood up, brushed his clothes and told them: ‘Kill me for all I care. But I warn you not to touch my money – not a paisa’

Saadat Hasan Manto

I stand at the side of a mountain road the shrine of the ‘Panj Pirs’, built on a cliff that drops all the way down to the broad bed of the Jhelum river. behind me. Every few minutes a loaded bus or car drives by slowly as the occupants bend their heads and clasp their hands in reverence to the saints.

Many use this road to get to Vaishno Devi temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. The same road takes you to the besieged city of Srinagar in that ‘other’ Kashmir. It is late afternoon and there are a few devotees at the shrine itself. In his wonderful book Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India the writer and academic Yoginder Sikand writes that the shrine has a Hindu mutawalli. I ask around but no one seems to know anything about that. Sikand points out that there are millions of followers of the 5 holy men, and little stone platforms with 5 raised box-like compartments can be found in hundreds of villages and town all over North India. The shrine is well know and even fully loaded public buses on their way to and from points North reduce their speed to allow the passengers to offer dharshan to the saints. I walk into the shrine’s sanctum and find a young bride sitting with her forehead pressed against one of the graves. Her bright red clothes and henna covered hands suggest a newly wed. A young man in starched pants and a crisp yellow shirt stands smoking a cigarette outside. The groom? He and a few friends are on the terrace looking out over the cliff and towards the imposing Ranbireshwar temple that sits on the opposite banks of the river. “This is a good place to come with friends and some cigarettes.” my friend who drove me here comments. “All these beautiful young brides to admire!”

There were ten or twenty girls. Two friends paid forty-two rupees to buy off one of them. ‘What is your name?’ asked one of them. The man was furious when the girl disclosed her name. ‘We were told that you belonged to the other community!’ ‘He pulled a fast one on you,’ the girl replied. The man rushed to his Friend’s house. ‘That bastard has cheated us. He palmed off to us a girl from our own community. Come, let’s pack her off.’

Saadat Hasan Manto

Suketa Mehta, in a piece called A Fatal Love, wrote that we killed each other because we loved each other. It was the murderous rage of a lover betrayed. The realization of the unfaithfulness of someone we would have died for was too much to bear. I agree with him, because it is love that has allowed these shrines to these Sufi saints to survive one of the great cataclysms of human history. I had seen this phenomenon in Indian Punjab as well. In the otherwise nondescript city of Faridkot I stood and watched throngs of Sikh devotees at the shrine of Baba Farid, a highly influential Chisti saint from the region of Pakpattan in what is now Pakistan. His followers were spread out over the entire region in both Pakistan and India. In fact, Baba Farid’s poetic compositions have been incorporated into Sikhism’s holiest book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Across the border in Pakistan I traced one of Mumbai terror attack suspects to a small town in Pakistani Punjab also called Faridkot. “We are followers of the Baba, ” a village elder told me when I questioned him about the presence of this terror suspect in his village. “How could we, or our children, be involved in such activities!”. Baba Farid’s verses repeatedly speak of forgiveness and compassion.

Farid, if you are wise, then do not write evil against others

Look into your own heart instead

Farid, do not turn and strike those who strike you

Kiss their feet, and return to your own home.

Who else then as speaking to the children of the Baba?

Suketa Mehta explains in A Fatal Love that:

The governments have their own ideas of the story, and they have the power of the state to spread their version, through textbooks. School textbooks on both sides, written as always by professional liars, gloss quickly over Partition, preferring to concentrate on the struggle for independence, a much more noble chapter in the subcontinent’s history. When Partition is dealt with at all, it is portrayed as a massacre of our people by their people. The way we gained independence is something to be proud of, an example to other nations. What followed is our shared secret shame. But surely Partition, the splitting up of the subcontinent and the mass transfer of populations, was a far more important historical event than independence from a foreign power which ruled parts of the region for less than two hundred years, an eyeblink in South Asian history.

Across this blood soaked frontier, the Sufi saints still sing their songs, reminding us of the possibilities that remain for bridging the divide that has plagued this region for centuries. Ironically I find that in Jammu it is the city’s Muslims who are least prepared to hear the songs of the men who first bought Islam to this land and help unite all its people under their words of tolerance and love. The shrines are shunned by Islam’s self-declared orthodox. Their rigid and simplistically canonical readings of the holy books precludes their participation in Sufi practices and traditions. On the other hand Jammu remains a staunchly Hindu city, the forces of Hindutva shrill and seductive. And between these two blind armies of righteousness the saints sing their little songs, their shrines lovingly and discreetly cared for by devotees from the entire breath of India’s marvelous complexity and diversity. And they wait, for the day when people may once again hear and understand those old lessons that are today more relevant than ever before.

Notes:

I am grateful to Professor Anna Bigelow whose work on the shrines in the Punjab was the inspiration for my travels there. Her essay Everybody’s Baba appears in the forthcoming Glenn Bowman’s (editor) Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Inter-communal Relations around Holy Places.

I am also grateful to Professor Yoginder Sikand whose lovely book Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India and its essay on the Sufis of the city was what convinced me to spend some weeks in that city and explore it for myself.

Jul 07, 2009 | Kashmir, Rituals & Festivals, Shared Landscapes, Sufism

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